Wednesday, May 29, 2013

I Hate to Say "I Told You So," But . . .

Remember how the Columbia County Board of Elections, in particular Democrat commissioner Virginia Martin, fought to keep using the old lever voting machines? Today the New York Times reports that New York City, after spending $95 million over the past few years to implement electronic scanners, wants to go back to using the old lever machines: "New York City Wants to Revive Old Voting Machines." 


  1. American Idol and dancing w stars both post results in minutes. If ever we have digital 1 social 1 vote, fraud will become "trick Rick-riggery".

  2. Oh, where to start on this. Let's respond to the article.

    First: The "federal law" (the 2002 Help America Vote Act) did not "call for states to modernize their voting machines." It called for several needed improvements to election administration, and it also offered money--big bucks--NYS took $50 million--to any states that wanted to modernize their machines. It did not prohibit the use of lever voting machines; it merely said that accessible machines must be available for voters with disabilities, in federal elections. There was nothing stipulating that a voting system could not comprise a lever machine and an accessible machine--so the overwhelming percentage of votes could have been cast on a lever machine. (Nobody used the accessible component of our scanners in last year's presidential election, in which we had an excellent 73% turnout. Not one.)

    See Section 301(a)(1)(A) of HAVA, which says that, so long as “the voting system (including any lever voting system, optical scanning voting system, or direct recording electronic system) shall...” comply with five federal standards (one of which relates to accessibility), the system is HAVA-compliant.

    Second, yes, the feds sued NYS in 2006 because it hadn't complied with the law by offering accessible machines at each poll site. But NYS had in 2005 passed its own law that prohibited lever machines. So, to appease the DOJ, it agreed to enforce its own law. For the 2008 presidential election, while NYS didn't succeed in enforcing its law prohibiting lever machines, it did comply with HAVA, because there was an accessible machine, along with a lever machine, at each poll site. But by that time there was this pesky DOJ consent order in place.

    Third, "the new machines provide a paper trail that can be used in case the election results are in dispute." True if you vote in Columbia County, where we hand-read every single paper ballot, and partially true if you vote in New York City where there is an automatic recount law on the books for any very-close race. Elsewhere? The paper trail isn't so handy except for looking at ballots from 3% of the machines deployed--capturing possibly enough ballots but not the right ballots--not a statistically significant sampling--and considering whether the machine counted correctly or not. If a discrepancy is found, the audit can be "escalated" to review more ballots only if BOTH commissioners--including the commissioner representing the apparently winning candidate--agree to do so. How many times has this happened, if any? I don't know. How many commissioners will agree to risk a winning campaign by looking at more ballots?

    But, you might say, there are always the courts. Wrong there, too. No court has ever ordered a recount. It's not like they haven't been asked.

    Fourth, the vendor has a solution--buy more machines.

    Fifth, lever machines should not break down if they are well maintained and parts are replaced regularly. There was a "popular misconception" making the rounds of election officials and the public that parts were no longer available and that the two companies that manufactured the machines were out of business. Well, maybe they are out of business now (I think I'll contact them to find out), but three years ago when the future of vote counting was in hot dispute, they were very much in business, and at least one was also eager to redesign machines that would better meet current needs. When you're dealing with a secret ballot, processes that are simple and mechanical are far superior to zeroes and ones, which are subject to programming or other operational error--or manipulation. (Nah. Nobody would do that.)

    I'll stop there.

  3. Sorry! I forgot to respond to the frankly ignorant Tammany Hall reference. Lever machines were designed specifically to eliminate Tammany's corrupting influence! How history gets rewritten…

    Professor Brian Pfaffenberger from the University of Virginia has done excellent research into the history of voting machines, and he has great respect for levers:

    "Although lever machines do not produce an independent audit trail, this is -- as software engineers say -- a feature, not a bug. In the 1880s and 1890s, paper ballots emerged as the locus par excellence of election fraud; lever machines were expressly designed to take the human element out of every aspect of the vote recording and counting process in order to eliminate fraud that was gravely undermining Americans' confidence in their democracy. It is quite astonishing to realize that, while the lever machine was under development, inventors came up with just about every voting machine concept that has since been realized, including precinct-scan punchcard technologies, ballot printing machines, and even electromechanical systems that can be seen as predecessors of computerized technologies. All of these technologies produced paper records, however, and all were flatly rejected, both by voters and election officials, as letting the possibility of fraud in through the back door. Today, there are widespread calls to bring paper back into the picture, but the reason is that people do not trust the machines.

    "Having studied the history, I strongly believe that there would be no such call for paper if the ugly history of fraudulent practices enabled by paper ballots were known -- unfortunately, the American people have forgotten the lessons they learned a century ago, and I greatly fear that we will have to repeat them in order to learn them again."

    Pfaffenberger's remarks, from 2008, can be seen here:, on page three of this in-depth article about the issues confronting the voting-machine deciders.